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Great Basin National Park
Introduction. The Great Basin National Park is unassuming. It doesn’t have the brand recognition of Grand Canyon or Yellowstone and it’s easy to miss on maps. The scenery tells quite a different story, however. Here in eastern Nevada, almost in the center of the void-like Great Basin, Wheeler Peak seems to rise out of nowhere. The peak is like a slice of the Alps that was accidentally dropped into the Great Basin. And it’s no surprise that this is the Great Basin’s highest point. While Wheeler Peak is the centerpiece of the 70,000 acre park, there is so much more to see in this slice of high country. Great Basin National Park was created in 1986. Before its establishment the land was mostly owned by the U.S. Forest Service and preserved in the Wheeler Peak Scenic Area of Humboldt National Forest. There was small national park at the foot of the mountain, Lehman Caves National Monument, which was consolidated with the new national park. Lehman Caves are a spectacular series of limestone drip formations with stalagtites and stalagmites. The isolated location holds back crowds from the park and in 2006 only 78,500 visitors were logged. Much of the park’s activity and visitors see only the northern third where the beautiful scenic drive is located. The southern two-thirds of the park are mostly road-less with primitive camping available and backcountry access via trails.
History. The Lehman Caves were most likely discovered by Absalom Lehman in 1885 and the caves became a national monument administered by the National Park Service in 1922. The area has always been sparsely populated. The nearest town, Baker, remains unincorporated, and the county, White Pine, has an estimated population of under 10,000. White Pine County was established from Lander County in 1869. White Pine is another name for Limber Pine, a tree that is commonly found in the mountains of eastern Nevada. Ranching, mining, and timber were the economic mainstays of the region. Before white settlers moved into the area nomadic Pauite Ute, and Shoshone Indians were the main inhabitants. The first people of European descent to have visited the area were Mormons who sent an expedition lead by Pahvant Ute Indian guides to explore the area. Known as the White Mountain Mission they wrote on June 2, 1855 of spotting “a big mountain” (Wheeler Peak). In 1909 the Nevada National Forest was created by President Teddy Roosevelt and it encompassed what is now the Humboldt National Forest, part of which became Great Basin National Park.
Geology. Wheeler Peak is the high point of the Snake Range in eastern Nevada. The Snake Range is one of the many north-south trending mountain ranges in the Great Basin, or Basin and Range Province, between Utah’s Wasatch and California’s Sierra Nevada. These ranges are all separated by graben-like valleys and on a map they resemble chains laid out haphazardly. Overwhelmingly the rock type of the Basin and Range mountains is limestone, granite, or volcanic. In total the province covers about 170,000 square miles mostly in Nevada but also extending into parts of southern Oregon, Idaho, western Utah, and northeastern California. This unique topography resulted from crustal extension. As the earth’s crust stretched, series of faults resulted to relieve the pressure. Basins are typically blocks of crust that fell down while the mountain ranges were (are) uplifted faults. It is speculated that the crust beneath the Great Basin is some of the thinnest on the earth’s surface which helps explain the relative abundance of thermal activity in the region such as still active hot springs and volcanoes that were active up until 10,000 years ago. Estimates of the age of geologic uplift of the Snake Range probably dates the mountains to 48 – 41 million years ago (mya), during the Eocene Epoch making it a relatively young mountain range. The oldest rocks are the Precambrian quartzite that make of the summit block of Wheeler Peak. Much of the higher elevations bears scars of the last ice age where considerably large valley glaciers reached into lower elevations. Alpine tarns, moraines, cirques, and of course the vestige rock glacier, are the best residual evidence.
Natural Wonders of Great Basin National Park
Wheeler Peak (3982 meters/13,063’). The highest point in the Great Basin and second tallest peak in Nevada after Boundary Peak, Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain completely in the state of Nevada. It is a beautiful and impressive peak from any angle and its domination of the surroundings is obvious. It is the thirty-first most prominent mountain in the United States. The scenic drive that winds up toward the base of the peak reaches an elevation of 10,000 with great views of Wheeler at many pullouts. Hikers can climb the peak from the road’s terminus where a trail leads to the summit.
Lexington Arch is a large limestone arch just inside the park’s southeastern boundary. It requires a hike of 1.7 miles from the terminus of the 12 mile dirt road and the arch is located at an elevation of 8270’. It is one of the largest limestone arches in the United States.
Lehman Caves. The caves were part of the national park service before the entire are was designated a national park and are worth a visit. Visit to the caves requires a group tour and takes about one hour. These beautiful limestone caverns contain a number of passageways with various, if not typical, dripstone formations which includes stalagtites and stalagmites.
Icefield (rock glacier). This was the Great Basin’s last recorded glacier but forward movement apparently stopped in 1955 (an icefield needs to move forward in order to be considered a glacier). Since then it has been downgraded to a rock glacier – in other words it is covered by rocks that slide or fall from adjacent heights onto the snowfield’s surface and it has been slowly retreating up to the cirque. The rock glacier can be accessed from about a two mile hike from the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. The trail leads through bristlecone pine forests and it is beautiful as well as interesting.
Bristlecone PineForest. These gnarled and twisted trees are considered the oldest living things on earth, at least the species, and they can be found on the slopes of Snake Range in the national park. From the terminus of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive there are marked trails that lead to the Bristlecone Pine forest.